I admit it, I’ve lived my life from a highly individualistic perspective. That’s how my family worked, and I know it’s pretty normal in the American culture. That’s a good thing, of course, but what surprises me is that I’m just now realizing how different this makes Americans from much of the world…and also why that matters so much.
Earlier this year I was in a seminar led by a truly expert voice on ethics and leadership, Father Robert Spitzer, and I asked him why the same choice can be considered ethical by one person and unethical by another. His answer helped me learn, for the first time, that half the world approaches life from a collectivist perspective (including most Asian cultures) – decisions are always first considered through the lens of “what’s good for the group” as opposed to the individual-rules viewpoint.
So, a choice can be considered right by one person based on the best interest of the group, while that same choice can be unfathomable through the individualistic lens. Think for a minute how this can affect relationships in our lives – such fundamentally different perspectives can create a lot of confusion and conflict. In The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar, a fascinating book about the science of choice, these differing cultural perspectives were confirmed as a key distinction in how people make choices. Perhaps this helps to explain one source of clashing cultures in our world.
This is so simple, but how did I get into my 50’s before I learned anything about this? I must have missed that session of Sociology class. Is it just me? Does everybody else already realize this? When I mentioned it to one of my wisest friends, also in his 50’s, he said he had just recently been exposed to this idea himself for the first time. What a relief! I’m not alone.
Then it struck me how a great experience of mine over the past 5+ years has been teaching me this insight all along…and I didn’t even realize it. I have been a volunteer with The Ethical Edge serving on the selection committee for the Leaders of Integrity Awards presented annually for excellence in ethical leadership (these awards were just presented on November 1st). The committee process represented a glimpse at the intersection between the individualistic and collectivist perspectives.
Each of the dozen committee members started as advocates for their own nominees and passionately told the story of extraordinarily ethical people. Then an amazing thing happened. The individual advocacy ended and the group entered a new world – reaching consensus. This may sound easy, but having done this now with 5 or 6 different groups of committee members, I find that my own amazement at the consensus experience has been shared by most every first-time committee participant. Releasing our own passionate advocacy position is harder than we may think. However, when a group commits to a common goal, it can get beyond self interest and really think as one mind.
Until now I never understood why this experience was so unique. Learning what reaching a true consensus feels like – a group decision that strives for a goal larger than each individual, a “greater good” thing – was an epiphany for me because it was a glimpse into the collectivist culture that was previously unknown to me. In the largely Machiavellian and competitive world where we live, this was a truly breakthrough experience.
I find it is enriching to take a break from my naturally individualistic mindset and see how the other half lives (thinks, actually). I believe that many relationships in my life can be better because of this understanding. Perhaps you might want to give it a try for yourself – whether your natural frame of reference is individualistic or collectivist – try to understand the other half of the world. Your relationships might also be better for the effort.
Thanks for sharing time with me; as always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback and please feel free to pass this message along to others who may find value.
The Ethical Edge http://www.ethicaledge.org/
The Art of Choosing – Sheena Iyengar http://sheenaiyengar.com/the-art-of-choosing/ TED Video: http://www.ted.com/talks/sheena_iyengar_on_the_art_of_choosing.html
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